By Jim McCarthy Jul 3, 2012 0 comments

Some Problems, Free Wi-Fi Can’t Solve

If you’re a regular Live 2.0 reader, you’ve probably heard me characterize the NFL as the greatest live entertainment property in the world with a lot to teach the rest of the industry.  On the other hand, I’ve been early in pointing out some issues that I think have the potential to damage, perhaps critically, the league’s success.  (Obviously, I’ve had more company lately as a result of the concussions problem.)

But two years ago, I identified a weakness that I worried would get worse and ultimately cause problems.  To be specific, I said “The NFL in-stadium experience is awful, unless you’re a drunken idiot.”  Once I worked through the hate mail from the Drunken Idiot Community, I still felt comfortable that I was right.  Here’s a bit more from my comments at the time:

“This is not for the usual reasons an experience is bad, like poor quality facilities, poor service or mismanagement of crowds.  It’s because going to an NFL game is vaguely like walking into a bad neighborhood from a movie, and if you’re wearing the wrong color, that might be all it takes to have an experience you’ll never forget, if you get out alive.  (Ok, you’ll get out alive, but you’ll probably never want to go back.)…

…Once it gets out that normal people don’t belong near an NFL game, it’s just a matter of time before they start re-thinking their safer, more distant interest in the game.

Because the live version of everything should be the premium version of that thing.  Going to the stadium should be like going to football Mecca for the fan.  If it’s not, there will be a gradual sense that the “product” has a giant hole where its heart should be.”

Well, guess what.  NFL attendance is down.  Not tragically down, I’ll grant you, but down about 5% in the last several years.  That’s enough, as the article points out, to vaporize the famous waiting lists in cities where people famously waited a generation to get access to season tickets.

The article sites several very sensible reasons for the decline: a better and better TV experience; the economy; and a desire for consumers for things like wi-fi and instant replay while in the stadium (I say maybe, maybe not to that last one, but still.)

These may contribute, but what didn’t get mentioned, but which I feel strongly impacts the mindset of ticket buyers who might otherwise go is the experience at the stadium.  I’m not talking about being able to see an instant replay on your phone.  Rather, I’m talking about the worry that if you take, say, your kid or your mom to a game to see their favorite team, someone might pelt them with a beer or unleash drunken verbal abuse on them for three hours.  That’s after you walked through a half-mile of broken glass in the parking lot from all the Jim Beam bottles the tailgaters left behind.

Let’s be generous and say that this kind of experience only appeals to a certain niche audience, and until that changes, so that a far broader set of audiences actually feels like an NFL game is someplace they belong, I foresee this trend continuing, especially when mixed with the concussion and bounty issues.

Can the NFL retain its crown as America’s favorite game and reap both the financial rewards and social esteem that comes with that?  Or is it destined to become a dark, violent niche in the landscape, still prosperous perhaps, but always retreating slightly away from the mainstream?

It’s hard to say, but I predict we’ll see where it’s going first by looking at what happens to the live experience.

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